Plan a California Coast Road Trip with a Flexible Itinerary

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur. Photo © Michael Bundscherer, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The ideal way to experience the California coast is to hit the road. Following this legendary road trip will take you through California’s bustling cosmopolitan cities, small beach towns, redwood forests, and lots and lots of sandy beaches.

You can switch back and forth between the two routes depending on your pace and your interests. Highway 1 is generally more scenic; U.S. 101 is usually faster.For the most part, you’ll cover this stunning 850 miles by following the legendary Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) and U.S. 101. You can switch back and forth between the two routes depending on your pace and your interests. Highway 1 is generally more scenic; U.S. 101 is usually faster. A few diversions onto other routes are necessary to cover the entire coast (for example, you’ll be driving I-5 between San Diego and Los Angeles).

The day-by-day route below begins in San Diego, but you can just as easily start in Los Angeles or San Francisco, or reverse the route from driving north to driving south if that works better for you. You can also break out any section of the coast as its own 2-4 day getaway.


San Diego

Day 1

map of San Diego

San Diego

Easygoing San Diego is a great place to start any vacation. Upon arrival, orientate yourself by driving to the top of Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial, a small mountain that has views of the whole city. After that, head down to La Jolla Cove to go kayaking or snorkeling; or just lie on the beach.

In the afternoon, visit Balboa Park, where you’ll spend most of your time at the San Diego Zoo. End your day with a meal in the Gaslamp Quarter. Try the historic Grant Grill or new favorite Café Chloe.

Day 2

Take I-5 out of San Diego a half hour north to the North County beach towns of Encinitas, Carlsbad and Oceanside. The drive from Encinitas to Oceanside is just half an hour along a coastal road that changes names in each city; make sure to stop for a surf or a swim since the ocean temperatures will get cooler and cooler as you head up the coast. Continue on Highway 1 rather than inland U.S. 101 to visit Huntington Beach before turning off towards Long Beach for a nighttime ghost tour on The Queen Mary, an ocean liner that is now home to restaurants, a hotel, shops, and a museum. If you are daring enough, book a room for the night in the haunted ocean liner.


Los Angeles

Day 3

map of Los Angeles

Los Angeles

Jump on I-405 to save some time and drive about 30 miles north, exiting towards Venice Beach. Park your vehicle and take a stroll along the Venice Beach Boardwalk to take in the local wildlife that includes bodybuilders, street performers, and alternative-culture types. Without getting back on the highway, take the local roads paralleling the beach 10 minutes north to Santa Monica. Enjoy the amusement park rides of the Santa Monica Pier or just take a break on Santa Monica Beach. For dinner, get a taste of the Caribbean at Santa Monica’s causal but popular Cha Cha Chicken or backtrack to Venice for a hearty Italian meal at C&O Trattoria.

Day 4

Consider heading inland for a day of culture (and pop culture) sights. For aesthetic stimulation, visit the world famous Getty Center or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Less rigorous on the mind is a walk down the star-studded Hollywood Walk of Fame and a stop at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where you can find the handprints of your favorite movie stars. End the day with a cocktail at Sunset Boulevard’s Rainbow Bar & Grill. There might even be a grizzled, past-his-prime rocker sitting in the booth next to you.

Day 5

Take the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) out of Santa Monica west as it heads away from sprawling Los Angeles and into Malibu. Stop at Malibu’s Surfriders Beach to watch the surfers compete for its famously peeling waves (or catch one yourself). After a morning outdoors, feed your mind with ancient art at The Getty Villa in Malibu. (Admission is free, but you’ll need to reserve a ticket in advance.) Finish the day by watching the sun slide into the Pacific from the outdoor deck of Neptune’s Net, while enjoying fresh seafood. If you want to spend more time in the Los Angeles area, you can easily fill a couple of days enjoying Disneyland Resort.


Santa Barbara and Ventura

Day 6

map of Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara

Wake up early and drive north on the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. Thirty-five miles from Malibu, at Oxnard, merge onto U.S. 101. Once on U.S. 101, take the exit towards Ventura Harbor to catch a boat out to the Channel Islands National Park for a day of hiking, snorkeling, or kayaking on Santa Cruz Island. (Make boat reservations in advance.) Return to Ventura Harbor and eat dinner at one of the harbor’s seafood restaurants, such as Brophy Brothers or Andria’s Seafood Restaurant & Market. Or head to downtown Ventura for a vegan dinner at Mary’s Secret Garden or an Italian meal and cocktail at hip Café Fiore.

Day 7

Take U.S. 101 north just a half hour (28 miles) to Santa Barbara. Get a history fix at the Santa Barbara Mission, which might be the most beautiful of the 21 Spanish missions in California. Then taste some of Santa Barbara’s wines on the Urban Wine Trail, six tasting rooms on lower State Street, or head north for a day at palm-lined Refugio State Beach, 20 miles west of Santa Barbara on U.S. 101.

If your schedule is flexible, you might consider another full day in Santa Barbara, another day of wine-tasting in nearby Santa Maria Valley, or a day on the Gaviota Coast. Whatever you do, stop at Santa Barbara’s State Street for a fine meal or cocktail at a restaurant like the local favorite Opal. Or head off State Street for superb Mexican food at La Super-Rica Taqueria.


Big Sur and the Central Coast

Day 8

map of Big Sur

Big Sur

Drive 1.75 hours (92 miles) north of Santa Barbara on U.S. 101 to San Luis Obispo’s Madonna Inn, where you can take in its kitschy decor during a restroom and stretch-the-legs break.

Outdoor enthusiasts will want to head off the highway and go west on Los Osos Valley Road just 20 minutes (12 miles) to Montana de Oro State Park, one of the state’s best coastal parks. Picnic at Spooner’s Cove or hike to the top of 1,347-foot-high Valencia Peak. Then head back to U.S. 101 North, but be sure to turn onto Highway 1 north to take in sunset over Morro Rock, known as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific.”

Another option is to drive an hour north (44 miles) to opulent Hearst Castle. Tours of this “ranch” built for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst offer insight into the lifestyle of the rich and infamous. However you spend your day, end it with a meal in one of the Central Coast’s unassuming beach towns: Morro Bay, Cayucos or Cambria.

Day 9

Head north on Highway 1 for what might be the most scenic day of driving on your whole trip. The two-lane highway here winds along the mountains of Big Sur with plentiful views of the ocean. From Cambria to the heart of Big Sur is 75 miles, but the scenery, winding roadway, and frequent road construction can make the drive last well over two hours. Be sure to make multiple stops to take in the scenery at places like Salmon Creek Falls, Sand Dollar Beach, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Catch sunset at Pfeiffer Beach before spending the night camping in the redwoods of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park or in the meadow at Andrew Molera State Park. Or splurge with a once-in-a-lifetime stay at the Post Ranch Inn or Ventana resort.


Monterey Bay

Day 10

map of Monterey Bay

Monterey Bay

Continue up Highway 1 for 45 minutes (less than 30 miles) through the northern section of Big Sur to the Monterey Peninsula. Take a walk in Carmel’s Point Lobos State Reserve or head to scenic Carmel Beach. Then drive a few miles north into Monterey to spend the afternoon at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Dine on fresh seafood at Pacific Grove’s Passionfish, Monterey’s Fish House in Monterey, or Phil’s Fish Market up Highway 1 in Moss Landing.

If you want to spend another day in this area, consider heading inland to Carmel Valley for wine-tasting, wandering the galleries in Carmel-by-the-Sea, or golfing at Pebble Beach.

Day 11

Getting to Santa Cruz is an easy 50-minute drive (44 miles) up Highway 1 from the Monterey Peninsula. The eclectic beach city is an ideal place for recreation whether you are surfing, stand up paddleboarding, or hiking redwood-filled Forest of Nisene Marks State Park or the coastal bluffs of Wilder Ranch State Park. End the day with thrill rides at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

If your adrenaline is still racing from the Boardwalk rides, calm down with a drink at Red Restaurant & Bar or The Crepe Place.


San Francisco

Day 12

Map of San Francisco and the Bay Area in Caiifornia

San Francisco and the Bay Area

Wake up early for a drive on Highway 1 from Santa Cruz less than two hours (80 miles) to San Francisco. In the city, spend a few hours in the hands-on science museum The Exploratorium. As the sun goes down, make sure to head out for dinner, whether it’s seafood at the Tadich Grill, modern Vietnamese at The Slanted Door, or pizza at Tony’s Pizza Napoletena. If you still have energy, make sure to check out some of San Francisco’s vibrant nightlife or a concert at a venue like The Fillmore.

Day 13

Head out on the San Francisco Bay to take a fascinating tour of the island prison Alcatraz. Or secure passage on a ferry to Angel Island, which has hiking trails that offer up some of the finest views of the city.

In the afternoon, shop the used clothing stores of Haight-Ashbury or the department stores of Union Square. Or browse the books at North Beach’s City Lights.

You’ll quickly fall in love with San Francisco; you can easily extend your romance to three or four days if you have the time.


The North Coast

Day 14

map of Mendocino Coast

Mendocino Coast

Your journey north begins with a drive on U.S. 101 over San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Then after five miles turn off U.S. 101 to Highway 1 at Mill Valley. On the slow, over-four-hour drive up the coast (around 160 miles), make time to stop at places like the tiny but unique Sea Ranch Chapel, which is just feet off Highway 1, and the Point Arena Cove, a mile drive off the highway to a scenic little bay popular for fishing and other recreation.

End the day in the community of Mendocino with a view of the sunset at Mendocino Headlands State Park or a pint at the lively Patterson’s Pub.

Day 15

Drive Highway 1 north of Fort Bragg until the road turns inland to connect with U.S. 101 after about an hour of driving. Opt for the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile drive through redwoods by the Eel River. Even though it’s only 31 miles, the drive could take a few hours if you decide to get out of your car and ponder the trees.

Get back on U.S. 101 North and head an hour north (60 miles) to Eureka. Stop to wander the city’s Old Town and Waterfront. Continue on U.S. 101 another 10 minutes or so to charming Arcata. Wander through the redwoods of the Arcata Community Forest before sundown. Dine at one of the restaurants surrounding the lively Arcata Plaza.

Day 16

Start your morning with a tasty crepe from Arcata’s Renata’s Creperie and Espresso before hitting U.S. 101 North on your final day. About 20 minutes north (15 miles), exit to the scenic coastal city of Trinidad. Have your camera handy for photos of Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse, Trinidad Head and Trinidad State Beach.

Another half hour up U.S. 101 (26 miles), turn onto Newton B. Drury Scenic Drive to explore Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. If you have the energy, drive out Davison Road to Gold Bluffs Beach, where Roosevelt elk roam the sands, and continue on the dirt drive to hike the one-mile round-trip Fern Canyon Trail, which passes through a steep canyon draped in bright green ferns.

Head back out to U.S. 101 to drive the 45 minutes (38 miles) to Crescent City, where you can get a hotel room and a full night’s sleep.


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Coastal California.

Leave a Reply

26 Comments

  1. MICHELLE says:

    Can you help me plan a small road trip from San Diego to San Francisco? Departing San Diego on 2/2/15. Need to arrive in San Francisco by 2/5/15

    We would like to drive the coast – we are looking to stop at Seal Beach for a night to visit some friends.

    From there, who knows ??? Santa Barbara, Santa Eniz??? I am not familiar with Cali., but I know my husband and I would like to see some wineries and stay at clean quiet towns before arriving at our son’s in San Francisco. Would recommend Carmel ?

    Any suggestions and wisdom you can send my way would be very much appreciated :-)

    Michelle M.

    • Carrie Hirsch says:

      Hi Michelle,

      Carmel is a lovely town, quieter than Monterey, and the nearby Carmel Valley is known for its wineries. Moon Coastal California is a great guide for planning your road trip and has more information on what to do and where to stay in the Monterey Bay and Central Coast regions.

  2. Trixie says:

    Wish I had the time for a lengthy trip. I’m a stranger to California and have one week to see as much as possible. Want to see San Diego, San Francisco, redwood trees, seals, beaches, a winery or two, eat seafood, drive the Big Red Bridge, and enjoy local spots as well. I’d like to fly into LAX and out of San Francisco. Originating from DCA, RDU o RIC. Thanks for your help. Loved the article! Trip begin date is 2/12/15.

    • Carrie Hirsch says:

      Hi Trixie,

      There’s so much to do in California, but you can definitely see a lot in one week! Stuart’s book Moon Coastal California is a great resource for ideas on maximizing your time and can help you plan how to split up your days between San Diego, the Central Coast, and San Francisco.

  3. Diann Oliver says:

    Can you help me plan a 8-10 day trip starting in Santa Barbara up thru Monterey San Francisco and Sonoma. Our plans are open at this time, but planning to travel in the month of July 2015.

    • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

      Hi Diann,

      If you pick up Stuart’s guide book Moon Coastal California, he does also cover Northern California’s Wine Country.

      All of the locations in this itinerary are listed in full in the book and the chunk of trip outlined above going from Santa Barbara to San Francisco is 8 days. You can always cut time or skip a chunk of days depending on your preferred type of travel.

      If you’re hoping to spend a couple days in Sonoma, here’s a related three-day itinerary from our Moon Northern California author: Plan a Romantic Weekend in Napa & Sonoma. This might give you some ideas of places to stay or see, if you’re hoping for a mix of outdoors and luxury.

      Happy planning!

  4. Kelly says:

    10 days in March = 2 families (16, 15, 12, 9, 7 kids ages) pacific coast= adventure, minus kids menus : ) what’s the best to see from San Francisco to San Diego (last 2 days relaxing)

    • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

      Hi Kelly,

      Stuart listed a bunch of great options that are family-friendly on this itinerary. Some stand-outs are The Exploratorium in San Francisco, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Santa Barbara Mission, the Santa Monica Pier, and of course the many beautiful State Parks along the way.

  5. Shannon says:

    Planning a 7-10 day trip to Cali in September, 2015. No clue where to start, but would like to start near L.A., drive north on Hwy. 1 for the scenery and eventually, time allowing, wind up in Oregon. Is this doable in a week to ten days’ time? This is a 25th wedding anniversary trip. Also might be interested in hiking a bit of the PCT.

    • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

      Hi Shannon,

      Averaging for traffic, LA to San Luis Obispo is about 3.5 hours, and then on to San Francisco is about 4 hours of drive time. If you head inland after San Francisco to take the I-5 up to Ashland at the southern end of Oregon, that’s about another 6.5 hours.

      It’s certainly doable, but you’ll want to cherry pick where you stop to make the most of your time. Take a look at Stuart’s itinerary and see what areas call to you the most, and of course, his guidebook has more information about every area and attraction mentioned on this page.

  6. Leslie says:

    I plan using your guide this summer; however nervous about driving through Big Sur rt 1.

    • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

      Hi Leslie,

      What makes you nervous about HWY 1 through Big Sur? As a central coast native, I’ve made the drive plenty of times, including at night. It’s definitely a winding curving stretch of road, but it’s well-maintained with plenty of wide pull-outs to allow for slower traffic to pass or to take in the scenery.

  7. Marisa Rando says:

    Need a bit of help here. I have never been to California before but really want to make the most of my trip seeing this beautiful state. I’m flying into LA in March, plan on doing some traveling, then flying back out of LA 10 days later… Want to hit Santa Barbara, San Fran, Napa, Big Sur, and hopefully San Diego all within that time.. Do I have enough time you think? What are the must sees in each location?

  8. Jessie says:

    Hi Stuart,

    I feel lucky I came across your guide as me, my wife, and teenager son are planning on a trip to LA on April 18 to May 1. We would really appreciate your help in coming up with a sensible itinerary for the trip. First off we’ll be flying to and from LAX; and we’re planning on doing a road trip from LA to San Francisco and back to LA. We are interested in seeing the Grand Canyon, BigSur, Monterey, Bay Aquarium, Yosemite Park, Hollywood, Golden Gate, Alcatraz, San Diego Zoo and some vineyard. I know the places I’ve mentioned are quite out of sequence in terms of maybe distance from each other and I am not sure if our 13 day trip will be enough to cover those places. Please note that this will our first trip in the US and we just want to make it more relaxed. I hope you’ll find time to read my post and help us in our trip.

    Thank you,
    Jess

    • ivan says:

      Jump on the 405 to save time! What are they on crack?

      • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

        Hi Ivan,

        I’m from Northern California, so I can’t speak with any authority on that portion of the article, but if you have better information or a suggestion that will really save people time, please chime in! We’d love to hear it from a local.

  9. Katharina says:

    Hi!

    I am planning on driving from SF to LA and staying a night somewhere in between. Where would you recommend?

    Thanks :)

    • KP says:

      Was just about to ask this same question – could I also please have a recommendation – travelling with five people from San Francisco to LA in April but it will only be overnight, would love a recommendation for somewhere to stay somewhere in the middle – Thanks

      • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

        Hi KP,

        This is what I told Katharina: Read the sections from Santa Barbara to Monterey and make the choice based on what you’re interested in! Factor in that doing a straight drive from SF to LA is roughly 10 hours along the PCH. So where you decide to overnight may depend on how long you’d like to be in the car.

        If you’d like specific recommendations of accommodations along the coast, Stuart’s book Moon Coastal Californiagives in-depth coverage of each of the main towns/cities along the way.

    • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

      Read the sections from Santa Barbara to Monterey and make the choice based on what you’re interested in! Factor in that doing a straight drive from SF to LA is roughly 10 hours along the PCH. So where you decide to overnight may depend on how long you’d like to be in the car.

  10. Kate Souster says:

    Hi, I’m planning to go to the west coast this summer & would like to do 2 weeks traveling starting from San Francisco & ending up in San Diego (or that area) where I would like to spend a week on the beach. I know you said your itinerary could be inverted but it would be so much help if you could invert it for me ie day 1 San Francisco to …. Take the x road etc. Also could you suggest a great, not too touristy place for my week’s beach holiday. What did you do about booking hotels, did you do it before hand or ad hoc when you arrived at each place?

    Thanks,
    Regards
    Kate

    • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

      Hi Kate,

      Good luck planning your trip! Since this itinerary mainly follows the Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy 1) which hugs the coastline, it’s pretty easy to pop open google maps and just get familiar with which towns the highway passes through. As someone who road trips a lot, that’s always where I start so I can get a rough idea of how far it is between places that interest me and a general estimate of drive times.

      I personally recommend booking ahead of time, particularly during the summer. It’s always comforting to know you have a place to rest your head even if you’re running a few hours late and it’s far better for budgeting than showing up somewhere and finding out that the only rooms available are hundreds of dollars more than you would’ve otherwise paid.

  11. Lynnette says:

    We want to go from Coalinga to Kings city drive on 101 and 1 all the way to Seattle, Wa. We are in to old towns and I love light house can you help us?

    • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

      Hi Lynnette,

      Stuart’s Coastal California book does cover the north coast as well, but you might check out these books: Moon Oregon, and Moon Pacific Northwest Road Trip

      I’ve made the drive along 1 from San Francisco to Seattle a couple times; in fact just last year I used our Oregon guide to take that same trip along the 1. There are plenty of smaller, older towns along the way–though perhaps not as many old towns that retain their feel as you’ll find in Gold Country or in the eastern parts of Oregon and Washington.

      Bandon, OR along the southern coast in particular was a nice stop with a really great local historical museum.

      Good luck planning your trip!

  12. Jane Silverman says:

    Hi – we are planning a trip to San Francisco to see our son for a weekend- we have toured the city quite extensively. We have Monday to Friday to head north of SF – would like to do the coast and up into Oregon (coast as well) as far as we could/should go before we turn back to arrive SF by Friday afternoon. Any thoughts on “don’t miss” spots or places to stay, or what would be a reasonable trip…not driving the entire time. Thank you so much.

    • Stuart Thornton says:

      Here are a few must-see places on the North Coast. Mendocino is a really quaint and scenic town on some headlands jutting into the sea. You definitely want to spend some time in Mendocino. Just north of Arcata, Trinidad is one of California’s most stunning coastal communities. Check out Trinidad Head and the nearby beaches. The redwood parks are worth a visit. My favorite is Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park with its roaming elk, towering trees, wild coastline, and one-of-a-kind Fern Canyon. For more information, pick up Moon Coastal California. Have a great trip!
      —Stuart